Today, I clicked on a screenwriting jobs list and made myself dizzy from the eye-rolling it caused. Here is my favorite ad: Seeking stealth writer… no pay upfront.
To translate: I’m not going to pay you for the work you do now, and I won’t give you any credit for it later.
Oh, pleeeeze let me be exploited by you. Please, please, please! No, really, I’m sure it would be an honor.
But we all need writing gigs. So how can you tell if a writing job is real? It has taken me a sadly long time to figure it out, but I share it with you in the hopes of saving you my learning curve: It’s a real writing job if they pay you. That’s it, folks. If they are real, they will pay the writer for the writing. If they don’t, they’re not. Feel free to argue with me about this, but you will be wrong. Every. Damn. Time.
Now, I do make exceptions: when you write on spec, that’s your nickel. There’s a lot of free work involved in pitching, with no guarantee of winning the job. But if they are asking you to write their idea, particularly if you will not have ownership of the finished project, and they are not willing to pay you for it, they are probably not real players in the game anyway. And I will tell you why:
If they won’t put any money into the script or the pitch packet or the sales copy, they don’t care enough to go through the long, hard slog of making the damn thing real. This is true whether it’s a big-budget film or an bootstrapping start-up.
Money is an indicator of commitment. Once they put money into a project – for example, by paying you for your work – they have a stake. Makes it harder to walk away. No money… no problem leaving it behind when a shinier opportunity appears.
If you’re going to write for free, write your passion project. Write a new spec. Write poetry or your novel or something that feeds your soul. Don’t fall for someone eager to trade your time and talent for his or her own aggrandizement.